MovieMonday: Three Identical Strangers


“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”*


This oft-quoted philosophical observation describes the concern of this documentary about the fates of identical triplet boys who were raised by different families and only met by coincidence when they were 19 years old. Two of the triplets are still alive and trying to make sense of it all.

The boys were born in 1961 to a 17-year-old girl in New York City.  Six months later, a well-regarded adoption agency placed them with three different families — one prosperous, one middle-class and one working-class — and never told the families that each boy had two identical brothers.

The film opens with the remarkable story of how the boys came to find each other.  They reveled in the discovery and became close, enjoying each other’s company during a yearslong flutter of media fame.

What was learned later was that they had been separated by design and that the adoption agency had cooperated with a scientist who tracked the each boy’s development for comparison with the others.   The young men and their parents were rightly angry about the withheld information and about the triplets’ use as “lab rats,” as one of them puts it.

Studies of identical siblings separated as infants are valuable to scientists and ethicists.  They offer clues to how much of our personalities, and indeed our lives, are determined by our genetic backgrounds, by our childhood circumstances and by our own efforts.  Even so, the circumstances of the triplets’ research remain indefensible.

(The adoption agency closed years ago, and not just because single motherhood and abortions became common.  The agency had been sued at least twice; once for failure reveal to adoptive parents that their son was born to two schizophrenics who mated in an insane asylum and, in another another case, not revealing that a child had been born to an alcoholic mother and a heroin-addicted father.
In addition the agency separated at least 12 sets of identical twins and assisted with research of their personalities as they were being raised by different families.  The twins-triplets research data and information have been stored and barred from release until 2065; a movement is afoot to open the records to the adoptees and their families.)

The movie continues with revelations of the triplets’ differences and difficulties over years and discussions with journalists, relatives and the remaining two siblings.  It ruminates on the relative influences of their DNA and their childhoods.

This personalization frames the issue well, for the triplets’ case, but the movie ends with a conclusion that I’m not sure I trust.  Reality, as we know, is complicated stuff.

Still, the story is a good one.  It is nicely filmed and paced, and it examines an issue that concerns us all.


*The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard.  The common quote seems to be a modern condensation of this 1843 observation in one of his journals:

“It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.”

Gregor Mendel observed centuries ago that acquired characteristics are not transmitted.  He came to his conclusion after breeding peas, but it has been taken as truth and applied to all manner of life.  But what if that iron rule is not so firm after all?
A very interesting book just released takes up that very matter:  “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity” by Carl Zimmer.  Here is a review.

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